Fit to Be Untied

We welcomed Palm Sunday (04/01/2012) in Crafton Heights by reading through Mark 11:1-11.  This was the conclusion to a month of conscious exploration of questions of membership in the church and connection with each other.  In addition to hearing the scripture and sermon, the congregation was invited to sign on to a large reproduction of the covenant as a means of displaying our connection with each other in Christ.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (between 1884-1896)

What do you suppose happened to the colt?  It appears to be one of the unanswered questions of scripture.  Mark tells us that Jesus’ followers went into town and took the animal, saying that Jesus said he’d bring it back when he was finished with it.

Do you think that he did?  I mean, things got pretty busy pretty fast that week.  Do you think that Jesus arranged for the little fella to get back to its mother?  Or was that a detail that got overlooked in the cleansing of the temple, the last round of teachings, and then the trial and crucifixion?

We don’t know what happened to the colt.  What we do know is that at the beginning of chapter 11, the colt is tied up.  We know that because in the space of the first five verses, there are five references to tying or untying that beast.

It was tied.  Do you suppose that the Jerusalem chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested on behalf of this colt?  Why should that animal be tied up, anyway?  What if the source of water was just out of reach?  What if there were no shade or shelter from the intense Middle Eastern sun?  Why should that colt have to remain tethered there – or anywhere – subject to being pestered by dogs, children, or insects?  Colts are created for freedom!  To run, to leap, to play in the meadows of the world!  Untie that colt!

Yes, but…what if that colt was tied for its own protection?  After all, it was out of traffic.  Tying it there, under the vigilance of the neighborhood watch group, would keep the colt from being separated from its mother.  A tied colt is a secure, unflustered colt.

Why was it tied up?  It could have been any of those reasons, but I suppose that there was a simpler response to that question: the colt was tied there so that it would be ready when it was needed.

The gospel writer doesn’t reflect very long on how or why the colt was tethered.  All we know is that it was tied, and then it was untied and led to the place where Jesus used it.

I’m not really talking about colts, you know.

I wonder about you.  To what are you tied, and why?

Do you feel locked into your job?  Your relationship?  Your mortgage?

Some of us are tethered to a sense of self.  “I’m the guy who always has to ask ‘why?’”, someone told me the other day.  Maybe you see yourself as the life of the party or the “good” child or the caregiver.

We’re tied by our habits.  A friend of mine told me that he was unavailable for anything on Thursdays because it was bowling day.  You wash the car every Saturday.  Good habits can pin us down.  Of course, bad habits can, too: you keep twisting the truth as you try to finagle your way out of a situation at work and discover that you can’t remember what really is true…you think that maybe you could cut back on the amount of time you waste on your computer, but it’s so easy to just turn it on and get lost in the world of gaming…

As you think about your own life, do you prefer to be tied or untied?  For us, unlike that colt, it is essentially a matter of choice, after all.  We can decide to accept a job or buy a house or remain in a relationship or continue to play the games or whatever…

I believe that most of us, most of the time, prefer to be tied in to some areas of our lives.  We want something that is steady, and predictable.  We want a routine.  A friend told me recently that she hoped to develop the kind of relationship where she could go into a restaurant and have “the usual”.

I know that is not what our culture says that we want.  From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fight Club, from Thelma and Louise to the Hunger Games, we learn that humans want to be free from the shackles that confine us; we talk about breaking free from conformity and obedience and sameness… and yet we so often choose to be tethered to something.

My question for today, then, is this: do the things to which I tie myself interfere with Jesus’ ability to use me?

Giotto di Bondone, fresco, created between 1304-06

Jesus’ instruction, after all, was not merely to untie the colt.  He said, “Untie it, and bring it to me.”  At the risk of over-investing meaning in a sentence or two that Jesus said, it seems to me that we can infer that both tying and untying have a place and a purpose.  We are not created for slavery or drudgery or a dull grey monotonous existence.  “Untie that colt!” Yet neither are we sent into the wilderness of this world with no structure, no relationships, and no identity.  “And bring it to me!”

Like that colt, you and I are called to be in the place where we are most useful to God.  Sometimes, that is in a place where I am rooted or anchored, bound to structures and relationships that sustain and define me.

And sometimes, I need to be loosened from those places and led somewhere else.

Much of the time, the place to which I’m currently tied prepares me for life that is on the way.  Marriage prepared me for fatherhood, for instance.  Showing up at work allows me to practice keeping promises and to anticipate the situations I encounter once I am there.  And being in a special relationship with the group of people known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights helps me to see what is important through eyes that are like, but not identical, to my own.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to consider whether you are able and willing to sign a document that reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, in response to the grace of God, desire to be constituted and organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to be known as The First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights.  We promise and covenant to live together in unity and to work together in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ, bound to him and to one another as a part of the body of Christ in this place according to the principles of faith, mission, and order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This covenant involves a lot of tethering – to live in unity; to work in ministry; to join together as followers of Jesus.  In the covenant, we are tied to each other in faith, in mission, and in an order that comes from Christ.  That covenant implies mutual submission.  In signing that document, I am making a choice.

It’s important for us to realize that when I sign this covenant, I am binding myself not only to the Lord, but to you – for His sake and for the sake of the world, in addition to whatever joy I might receive from maintaining a connection with you.

The first Palm Sunday gave the people in Jerusalem the opportunity to acclaim Jesus as Lord and savior.  In the events of the week that followed, his closest friends re-evaluated what exactly it meant to say that Jesus is “savior” and “lord”.  They were already tied to Jesus, of course, but in that first Holy Week they had to untie themselves from the notion of Savior as that of a conquering hero or military presence.  When they were free from those notions, then the earliest church was able to follow Jesus into the world, loving and serving in his name.

Being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has historically been, in some places at least, a pretty smart move.  You came into town and you signed a covenant like this and you could expect certain payoffs.  The Presbyterian Church was full of contacts that would be useful for your career.  The Presbyterians were known to have a lot of doctors and lawyers and bankers, so when you needed some advice, it was nice to know that those folks were playing on your team.  The Presbyterian Church was full of “our kind” of people, and you could go there, as did my parents, to meet a prospective spouse and then some babysitters.  Being Presbyterian carried with it a certain level of credibility and prestige – at least in many places.

And, for all I know, that’s still true in some corner of the globe.  But for the most part, we live in a culture in which church is irrelevant.  It’s seen as, at best, an idealistic gesture wherein we can gather to attempt to hold on to memories from the past. Bill Gates
, the founder of Microsoft, has summed up this view of the church by saying: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”  At its worst, of course, the church is now seen as a destructive influence that perpetuates bigotry and hatred and ought to be done away with.

And yet, here we are, committed to one another in love.  Here we are, sitting next to people who not only are NOT Doctors and Lawyers ready to give out free advice, or business tycoons who are prepared to advance our careers – heck, the people we are sitting with can’t even be trusted to like our music, or to vote the way that they ought to in November, or to make decisions that we always agree with.

And yet God is calling us to tie ourselves to each other in the belief that we as a body will be of use to him in this time and in this place.  Not because we are so smart or well connected or attractive or even right all of the time, but because there is something here that we cannot make, we can only receive; there is something here that is given, not taken; there is something here that is for healing, not for cursing.  There is the body of Christ.

This day, I hope that you will join me in promising ourselves to each other because we trust that Jesus Christ is still at the front of this parade, and he will take us where we ought to go.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.